Disaster Management is a Disaster in India
On a gloomy afternoon on 29th November 2017, the Church bells rang in the fisher folk villages of Kanyakumari coastal district bordering Kerala and were promptly followed by announcements from the Church asking fishermen not venture into the sea due to bad weather. Nobody in these villages would have imagined that this light warning would develop into great disaster in the form of a cyclone.
The Cyclone Ockhi had travelled almost 4,000 nautical miles from being a low pressure area in the Gulf of Thailand in November. Though the weather authorities were aware of the developments from the 21st of November, they made no effort to assess how the cyclone would develop and warn the fishermen.
According to RMSI2, 40% of India’s population lives within 100 km of the coast, and only a fifth of India’s coastline is not exposed to cyclones.
It devastated India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives mostly. The worst affected area was the Kanyakumari district of India. There are approximately 80,000 fishermen from 47 fishing villages in India’s southernmost Kanyakumari district who are directly involved in fishing, many in deep sea fishing.
Unfortunately thousands of these deep sea fishermen had left a few days early. These fishermen had no clue of a cyclone warning as they were not equipped with radios or wireless equipment. India has banned the use of satellite phones for fishermen, though they are used in neighboring Sri Lanka.
According to figures provided by the South Asian Fishermen Fraternity (SAFF), the total number of fishermen from Kanyakumari killed by Cyclone Ockhi, as of December 31, 2017, stands at 173. It is alarming that out of the 173 fishermen reportedly killed, only 8 bodies have been recovered, leaving a staggering 165 fishermen still lost at sea.
The number of houses damaged in the cyclone stands at 5032, while the number of villages facing a shortage of drinking water is 1155 (around 95 villages). Roughly 299 out of 4284 hectares of paddy have been damaged, 13,150 coconut trees have been uprooted, 500,063 rubber trees damaged, 4.815 million banana trees destroyed. The number of trees uprooted on government land stands at 11,299 while the number of trees uprooted along the roads were 175 and 3623 hectares of horticultural crops have been damaged. In total 18 primary schools and 9 middle school buildings have sustained damage. Nearly 192.23 kilometres of village and village union roads, 9.8 kilometres of state highways, 11.9 kilometres of important roads and 53.34 kilometres of other roads need immediate repairs. Around 802 kilometres of power cables and nearly 13450 electric poles have been damaged in Cyclone Ockhi.
The farmers’ association of the Kanyakumari district stated that the damages include 8 million banana plantations, 2.5 million coconut trees, 2 million rubber trees, 1200 hectares of paddy cultivation, 1000 acres of tapioca cultivation, 20,000 arecanut trees, 2000 hectares of mango and jack fruit trees, 1000 hectares of vegetable plantations, 1000 hectares of pepper, clove and other spices and more than a thousand livestock.
Of the 237 fishermen dead, 170 are from various hamlets of Kanniyakumari while 67 are from other districts and states – 19 from Cuddalore, 17 from Nagapattinam, 4 from Tuticorin, 1 from Rameshwaram and 26 from Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Andhra Pradesh.
In the past 13 years, the state of Tamilnadu, India has witnessed 8 major/severe cyclones. Judging by the number of cyclones faced by the state, it should be safe to assume that the concerned national and state disaster management teams should be prepared to tackle any emergency or weather extremitiy. However, in reality, disaster preparedness is nonexistent.
Many of the legal, institutional and mechanism systems were conceived and put in place after 2004. This includes the introduction of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005; formation of Disaster Management Authorities at the national level (NDMA), state level (SDMA), district level (DDMA) and local level (Panchayat and urban local bodies).
Agencies such as the National Institute for Disaster Management (NIDM) and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were created to coordinate similar structures at national and state levels. Early warning processes were revamped with Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Central Water Commission (CWC) and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) to address multi hazardous predictions and the sharing of actionable, early warning information to the public ensuring ‘last mile connectivity.’
A closer look at the Cyclone Ockhi will prove a complete failure at several stages, most importantly detection and alerting people along the line of impact. During the Cyclone Ockhi, the three official information sources were the Tamil Nadu State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Ministry of Earth Science (MoES).
The IMD, MoES, SDMA and NDMA completely failed to predict the cyclone and its gravity. They had enough time to observe the movement of the depression, which turned into a deep depression and then into a cyclone. There were no disaster mitigation efforts in place and absolutely no early warnings which would have saved hundreds of lives. Factually incorrect information and a lack of communication in Kanyakumari made the situation worse.
Another omission in the NDMA’s current response mechanism is that there is no proper documentation as to how deep-sea relief ought to be carried out.
DAT ( Disaster Alert Transmitter) , developed by Indian Space Research Organization, was used by the fishermen stranded in the sea, however, the MRCC failed to respond to these distress calls, numbering as many as 90, and when they responded it was only after several days. None of the fishermen who used DAT were rescued by the Coast Guard. It revealed lack of coordination between MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) and the Coast Guard and culpability and gross negligence on part of both the MRCC and Coast Guard for not responding immediately to these distress calls.
There has been no direct communication between the district administration and the villages about the missing persons and the rescue operations. The information provided by the fishermen, who returned safely, was not acted upon by the authorities. 31 GPS locations of boats last seen by those who returned was handed over to the Kanyakumari District Administration on December 1, 2017 and also to the Defence Minister on December 3, 2017, but there was no action taken by the administration and the officials.
There exists no clear line of communication or coordination among the various state agencies involved in the search and rescue operations. There has been no regular communication with the affected communities. There was no coordination or information sharing between the governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In most cases, it was the families of those missing who visited hospitals in Kerala to check whether their family members had returned as they received no information from the government.
Mr. Vanjinathan of People’s Rights Protection Centre (PRPC), releasing a fact finding report on the 8th of January 2018 said that fishermen deaths must be treated as deaths due to negligence and cases must be filed against authorities concerned under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code and provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 20057.
The functioning of the various Disaster Management mechanisms in India has proved to be a disaster. If a working disaster management system had been in place and if we had learned our lessons post 2004 tsunami, hundreds of innocent lives could have been saved. Unless the Courts of India act and address accountability measures relating to those who failed in their duties to inform the poor fishermen and respond to their cries, such disasters are bound to continue. India must revamp its disaster management system.